‘It’s like a slap in the face’: Grand Strand family finds COVID-19 mislabeled on mother’s death certificate

Family has spent weeks trying to get the certificate amended
Updated: Sep. 2, 2020 at 8:36 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - In the aftermath of a loved one’s passing, a death certificate is used for settling legal matters, and perhaps can secure some kind of closure.

But one Grand Strand family has been in limbo for weeks - because their mother’s death certificate blames COVID-19 for her passing, and they say that’s simply not the case.

Georgetown County native Brenda Presley spoke with WMBF Investigates on her mother’s passing.

Mary Miller, described as a gentle and kind woman, died on July 18. She had been in the care of NHC HealthCare Garden City in Horry County for about a year and a half.

WMBF Investigates: Mislabeled COVID deaths
WMBF Investigates: Mislabeled COVID deaths

“The facility was great, was clean; the nurses seemed to be attentive - I would say, very well, she was taken care of,” Presley said.

When COVID-19 hit South Carolina, nursing homes locked visitors out.

“I wasn’t happy that I couldn’t get in there but I understood why they were doing what they were doing,” Presley said.

Still, it was a painful time for Presley, who visited with her mother through FaceTime, or window visits.

“She couldn’t understand why we couldn’t come in, and I think that part of health - that physical touch - is a part of keeping the elderly healthy,” Presley said. “You know, all of us - I think physical touch is very important. And for us to not be able to be with her - it’s just not the same.”

Residents took coronavirus tests, and Presley said the nursing home would rearrange residents in different rooms when a positive case would come about in order to prevent further spread.

Lab results show Miller was tested for the virus three times, each time coming back negative. The last test was taken July 13 - five days before she passed.

In the days leading up to her death, Miller had started to fall more, and one morning, she did not wake up. But Presley said questions soon arose from the family on just what was going to be labeled as the cause of death.

“We had heard of people falsifying death certificates and putting COVID on them, so that was a big concern of ours,” Presley explained.

When she was able to retrieve the certificate nearly a week later, she said her eyes immediately went to the cause of death. What lied there was shocking.

“I immediately wanted to start crying because I was so angry,” she said.

The cause of death listed acute respiratory failure. Underneath it read COVID-19, meaning that was what had led to Miller’s death.

Georgetown County Coroner Kenneth Johnson said DHEC’s Vital Records offices instructed officials to list a progression of what the conditions are.

“For example, you can certainly include respiratory failure; you can include some of those various particular elements as they relate to the question of COVID-19. And of course, once a person has been tested, you can’t put down something you can’t determine, by just thinking it was COVID,” Johnson said. “You put down a symptom, related to the COVID, and of course, your test of COVID is your final authority.”

Johnson said those things preceding the cause of death were because of it.

And Presley said COVID-19 is not what caused it. She began calling the nursing home to get connected with her mother’s doctor in order to correct the certificate.

According to South Carolina state law, a doctor, coroner, or medical examiner certifies a death certificate.

Some days later, Presley missed a phone call from the doctor, who left a voicemail.

“She apologized. She said she thought she was filling out a death certificate for another patient. She said she had doled out three to four that day,” Presley explained. “That concerned me, that she could think that she was filling one out for somebody else and get them confused.”

Presley said the doctor told her she’d get the death certificate amended. But July soon turned into August. August 10 marked yet another day that Presley asked the funeral home to check WebDeath on the amendment - and still nothing.

WMBF Investigates asked Tidelands Health for their statement on the matter. NHC HealthCare Garden City contracts with them to provide a medical director and this particular doctor serves in that role.

“On the day in question, (the doctor) erroneously listed COVID-19 as a cause of death on a death certificate. That same day, almost immediately after submitting the death certificate to the funeral home, she realized her inadvertent error. She immediately contacted NHC, the attending funeral home and SC DHEC to report the mistake and initiate a correction. NHC also contacted and informed the family. Since that time, (the doctor) has worked through both the local and Columbia offices of DHEC to file a paper addendum and update the death certificate. The addendum has been submitted, and DHEC will process the update to the death certificate. (The doctor) sincerely apologizes for the inadvertent error. Both (she) and Tidelands Health understand the importance of accurate public health reporting.”

Chase Ridgeway, the family’s funeral home director, spoke with their permission to WMBF Investigates.

He said mistakes can be made and nursing home doctors are oftentimes very busy, but didn’t understand why the changes hadn’t been made.

“What is taking so long to change the death (certificate) for this family? It’s a very simple process as far as filling out the paperwork, getting it sent in,” he said.

Ridgeway explained that when the doctor certifies the certificate, it is forwarded on to Vital Records, who prints the copies for the family. The family did not know that COVID-19 was listed until Ridgeway physically handed the certificate to them.

Amending a death certificate is not unusual and can happen for a variety of reasons. But when it comes to listing COVID-19 on it when it shouldn’t -- Ridgeway said this is the first he’s seen or known of in the area.

“My question is - how many other times has this happened, and families just swept it under the rug and didn’t really care?” Ridgeway asked. “Here we have a family that is very adamant that - you hear about this thing going on, and they’re like, ’You know this isn’t right, and we’re going to put our foot down, and we’re not going to be another number.’”

DHEC told WMBF Investigates that they can’t give a confirmed number of how many certificates have been changed in order to include or exclude COVID-19 from the original death certificate since they said there isn’t a metric easily captured in the database.

DHEC officials said Vital Statistics says the number would be “very low, probably less than 20 since COVID first emerged in the state in March.”

Presley said NHC followed up with her to say the amendment had been submitted to DHEC on August 21, more than a month after her mother passed away.

“If I had made a mistake like that in today’s world, I would’ve had it changed that day. I would’ve been like, ’Oh this is a mistake. And I’m going to stop what I’m doing until this is changed,’” said Ridgeway.

Several days ago, Presley received another phone call from the doctor - exactly one month from the last time she had heard from her. Presley said the doctor apologized again and said she’d never made a mistake like that before.

As of the first of September, Presley was told the system still hasn’t been updated to reflect an amendment.

“I would like truth to be put on a death certificate,” she said. “I would like for it to happen. I would like to be able to close this chapter. And move on.”

Presley told WMBF Investigates she’s heard of an instance of a mislabeled COVID-19 death of another resident of the nursing facility. WMBF Investigates inquired about that case as well.

NHC Care provided the following statement:

“We have contacted the physicians for these two families to help escalate their request for assistance in this issue. One physician shared this clerical error has been corrected and the amended death certificate was mailed last week. This is the first time a family has reported any COVID related issue with death certificates to our center. A physician and the coroner manage the death certificate process and report cause of death. We report all positive confirmations of COVID and deaths with COVID status to the health department. During this pandemic, we want to provide our families and the community with correct information and reporting status per CMS and CDC guidelines. For daily status updates, please visit our website.”

Johnson gave advice on what someone should do if the death certificate is incorrect.

“If there’s a question about what’s on there, I would encourage them to talk to the person that signed it,” he said. “Explain your concerns, explain the question, explain why it is not. They should be able to explain to you why it is, or they certainly could agree and say, ‘you know what? You’re right.’”

If you’re unable to get to the one who certified the certificate, he says you can also query DHEC Vital Records.

“There’s a method to change, correct, amend, supplement the original death certificate so that it shows the most current and most reliable information,” Johnson said.

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